GiveDirectly: Tech Narcissism in Africa? Or, What?

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 3.50.01 PMNew Orleans         I read a column in the New York Times by the spectacularly unreliable source, Nicholas Kristoff,  that was flatly arguing in his classic neo-liberal mindless hucksterism that rather than try to change the world, perhaps it was better to simply make money and give more away.  Despite the absurdity of his argument on its face, which should probably just begin and end with the point that in the vastness of wealth inequality today, the chances that any but the rarest would dedicate their lives to making “the sacrifice” to achieve wealth solely in order to give it away, or that simply giving money away eliminates the need to understand that the struggle against injustice, the drive to build power to create change, and the role of politics, culture, community, and other issues are not simply solved anonymously sending off a blank check, I figured “what the heck,” let’s look at one of these things called GiveDirectly  and see what’s up.

GiveDirectly appealed because it seemed simple.  From the description Kristoff gave it seemed like a direct transfer of money from donors to recipients.   You know, the way welfare was supposed to work although it never really worked exactly that way in the good old days before President Clinton and the gang changed “welfare as we know it.”

Going to the website though was bizarre.   Yes, it was about a direct transfer of money to poor people in Kenya largely and perhaps Uganda.  Otherwise it was mainly tech-speak.  The organizers thought it was important to let you know that some academics had studied the issue and there were positive outcomes for families in receiving money, but any welfare recipient in the USA could have told any of these donors for decades that their big problems in life were too much month and not enough money.  In fact, our whole argument in the National Welfare Rights Organization was “more money now” and “adequate income now.”  GiveDirectly  people also thought it was important for you to know that they sliced very little out of the pie in identifying who was poor through the marvel of determining that if you had a thatched hut in Kenya, therefore you were poor, and that they were bears on the issue of corruption.

It became clear in reading one section of the website after another that GiveDirectly  was in fact the anti-charity.  Their best arguments and their central emphasis was the fact that they wanted to change international philanthropy and make it less about projects and more about metrics.  Though it was unclear what they were measuring other than the efficiency in which they were transmitting the money.  There was something missing in the website and the whole concept.  It was Save the Children without pictures of children.  There were no people anywhere. There were graphs.  There were charts.  There were no people, and though there were plenty of metrics about the donations, there were none that offered any clue about the outcomes for the people.

The whole operation seemed deaf to anything but their own complaints as givers about giving.  They made the outstanding point that modern technology had reduced the cost and mechanism for money transfers to pennies, but it never would have occurred to them to support something like ACORN’s campaign for Remittance Justice which would redirect literally billions now being predatorily siphoned off by banks and money transfer organizations and allowing workers and relatives to move money to their families throughout the world.

From their numbers they seem to have been in business for about five years and by organizing with this negative, “disrupt philanthropy” outreach they had zoomed up to  $17 million in contributions with their “don’t get dirty, just give money” approach.  Perhaps on their $1000 per year strategy they will argue in the future that in one year they made it easier for 15,000 families or so.  Of course change the cost of remittances and you can redirect $30 billion that families are already trying to give each other, but simply being robbed on the way, and on their math that would benefit 30 million or so.  Families will continue to give to families. It is unclear from their argument whether the rich techie crowd that seems enamored of this approach will keep giving for the rest of their lives for even these families.

What’s the point of all of this?  Why bother?  Why don’t they simply walk out in the street and toss up hundred dollar bills?  Probably too much contact with real people and real problems.

The problem of poverty can be solved with money, but not just with money.  Put that on a website.  Discuss in Silicon Valley and Wall Street.


Of Course Corporate Contributions are About Buying Access and Influence

moneyMemphis   It’s interesting to watch the Washington two-step ignited by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s pushback against outside groups trying to mobilize against her progressive advocacy and the by catch of other fish squirming in her net.   To refresh your memory when the Third Way, a group of more conservative sometime Democrats, pushed against her more populist proposals to expand Social Security, she not only bucked back, but demanded disclosures from banks about where their corporate contributions were going, including to such outfits.  In some collateral damage others in turn then cast aspersions at President Obama’s naming of John Podesta, a former Clinton chief-of-staff and liberal DC playmaker, insinuating that his work with the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, and his large cardex of corporate donors might influence his work in the White House.  Now, the current President of CAP, Neera Tanden, has released the list of their corporate donors for the first time, saying none of them impact their work.

            The Center for American Progress has done some good work, and did so under Podesta, and for my part, I liked him and his work in all the dealings I have ever had with him.  He is a calm and battletested operator who doesn’t wilt, and that’s good for the President, the White House, and it has had value, whether his advice was taken or not, to ACORN in our day and no doubt to others.   No shrinking violet, he had never released his list of donors and probably never lost a moment’s sleep about it, no matter what anyone might have thought about it, one way or another.   I’m good with that.   He let the chips fall where they may when he ran CAP, and played the hand well and according to his own lights.

            I don’t know Neera Tanden.  She just released their donor list which has few surprises among  big banks, tech, education, and health companies, but does have some when it comes to foreign governments like Taiwan and Japan showing up in the roster, though it’s good to see they are interested in “American progress.”   Tanden of course says,

“… the donations have no impact on its work. ‘This is an institution that tries to find the right answers,’ she said in an interview on Thursday. ‘It does not answer to the agenda of any of its individual supporters or corporations.’”

As far as the two-step goes, she’s probably right.   All of their donors are too smart and shrewd to try and directly “impact” their reports or impose their “agenda,” but so what, that’s not why they are giving anyway.  Their donations are about the coin of the lobbying realm:  influence and access.  To the degree CAP and the hundreds of others smaller, lefter, righter, or whatevers are operating in the space in DC that is trying to make public policy, then access and influence, even if on others or in general, rather than any specific reports, is the coin of the realm.  Anyone would be naïve to think otherwise, no matter how the points are parsed and the story is spun.

The donors, especially the big corporations, have their own experts and outside consultants to crank out reports for them.  They don’t need these outfits to do that work, though sometimes it is advantageous if the work is done by others with more legitimacy and aligns with your interests of course.  

But, more than that, the influence and access coming from the corporations is always an A/E card without a limit in the politics of Washington.   Information is useful and so is knowing people.  Being at the table as policy alternatives are debated and offering your “perspective” becomes part of the calculus.   Meeting and “exploring” positions becomes part of the shaping that produces the final position.  Is this corrupt?  Of course not.  Is this normal and human?  Of course.  Is it pristine, pure, independent, and objective?  No not that either, but it is part of how the sausage is made.

These outfits and their relationships and so-called partnerships are about their corporate and private interests and not the public interest though, and in the transactional world of DC politics and policy, this is part of the grist for the mill.  The biggest bank account in DC may be the “favors” bank, and the “ask” always comes, and the fact that it doesn’t hurt to say “yes,” doesn’t mean that it had no value, impact, or influence.

That’s just the reality.  No shaming or finger pointing involved.  Senator Warren is right to want to know.   Even the Third Way is right to want to know all of the donors.   The rest of us need to know that somewhere all of their fingerprints are on the final reports and policy, no matter how light to the touch, not because it’s good or bad at this point, but simply because that’s the way it is in Washington, and to think otherwise is simply naïve or with all due respect to Ms. Tanden, simply beside the point.


Charitable Deduction Reforms

charityHouston          Yesterday in talking with Brian Johns, the organizing director of Virginia Organizing on “Wade’s World” on KABF  about his forthcoming article with Ellen Ryan for Social Policy called “Leadership Development is Not a Deliverable,” we were trying to follow the curiously circuitous paths of private philanthropy as it moves from grants supporting community organizing’s mission of empowerment to limited contracts directing specific work,   A calamitous evolution, we thought.

All of which made it impossible not to read closely an op-ed in the Times by Ray Madoff, a professor at Boston College’s Law School.

He made several inarguable points:

  1. Tax deductions for charitable giving by the rich and others taxpayers making enough money to make it worthwhile to itemize deductions is essentially cost to the government of $40 billion in lost tax revenues.

  2. Numerous nonprofit hospitals with tax exemptions provide less charitable care than for profit hospitals and are indistinguishable from big for profit corporations.  Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) thinks they should have to provide more charitable care.   Who can disagree?

  3. Conservation easements are being abused by big time developers to subsidize their developments.

  4. Too many donor advised funds have become vehicles for parking money to escape taxation for an unlimited period of time.   The professor suggests a cap of seven (7) years which doesn’t seem unreasonable.

  5. There hasn’t been a Congressional review of charitable deductions since 1969.

It’s hard to argue that the rich, hospitals, and developers should at least have to work for billions of dollars’ worth of benefits, rather than have the rest of us subsidize them.   Then maybe if we can make it matter, we can also make sure some of the real donations go to make real change.


Environmental Funders Backing Losing Top Down Strategy

New Orleans    Somehow I had missed the report when it first came out, but Robert Nunn in Little Rock connected me to Peter Montague’s explosive summary in The Huffington Post laying a huge weight for the failure of the environmental movement to win anything of major significance in recent decades squarely on the shoulders of big foundations and donors investing in top-down strategies.  Peter’s headlines might have been more provocative but reading the actual report, Cultivating the Grassroots:  A Winning Approach for Environmental and Climate Funders, that Sarah Hansen had written for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy was if anything, more damning.

The conclusions in the executive summary were stark:

This funding strategy will require a dramatic shift in our philanthropy. In 2009, environmental organizations with budgets of more than $5 million received half of all contributions and grants made in the sector, despite comprising just 2 percent of environmental public charities. From 2007-2009, only 15 percent of environmental grant dollars were classified as benefitting marginalized communities, and only 11 percent were classified as advancing “social justice”strategies, a proxy for policy advocacy and community organizing that works toward structural change on behalf of those who are the least well off politically, economically and socially. In the same time period, grant dollars donated by funders who committed more than 25 percent of their total dollars to the environment were three times less likely to be classified as benefitting marginalized groups than the grant dollars given by environmental funders in general. In short, environmental funders are expending tremendous resources, yet spending far too little on high impact, cost-effective grassroots organizing.

Perhaps nowhere has the failure of the top-down strategy been starker than on the collapse of the climate change initiative at both the national and global level.  At the other end the feistiness of grassroots, community groups and some of the more campaign-based environmental groups has been instrumental in bringing attention to both fracking and halting the Keystone X project’s projected pipeline and curtailing work in the Tar Sands.

The popularity of the environmental issue, and the billions of dollars in funding over the last decade which the NCRP report tags as now the 6th most popular funding category are staggering, so the calls over the years that this emperor is buck naked have been incessant.  Rarely though has the blame been placed so clearly on a wrong-headed funder-driven strategy.

The report argues for more funding and more community organizing.  I’ll admit that I’m biased here, but they are right, so that eliminates and disclosure on my part.  The report is worth a look.

Equally worrisome to me is that we are seeing the same failed strategy not only at the environmental level but also in the failure to win immigration reform where there was also a forced Beltway strategy which yielded nothing.  Housing policy is the same.  Equity and community development = ditto.  Over and over again the need for foundations and their advisors to find the soft berth and their own landing pad seems to obscure any real metrics around real effectiveness or a theory of change that works.

This is refreshing.  Maybe NCRP is looking at a series that finally brings some accountability here by speaking truth to power.  Unfortunately, there is still no reason to believe that any donor will change their minds and get on a winning track, which means more hard work for the beleaguered forces on the ground.


Rethinking Social Investments: Unreasonable Institute

TorontUnreasonableo I’ve confessed before that after watching the dissolution of ACORN in the US, I’m now obsessed with self-sufficiency.  Philanthropy is too risk adverse and governments are too political vulnerable to be stable funding sources for progressive work.  All of which made me eagerly read the piece in the Business section of the New York Times by Hannah Seligson on the Unreasonable Institute and its young 25-year old founder, Daniel Epstein.  The name seems to have been taken from a George Bernard Shaw quote that “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Ironically, the Unreasonable Institute itself though turns out to be supported by foundations and donations.  They bring wannabe entrepreneurs into Boulder, Colorado for an intensive 6-week program for 26 folks in figuring out how to raise private capital to support social response businesses providing solutions in the developing world.  I will overlook the fact that capacity building in for-profit sector and hopefully successful and profit making business ideas are being nurtured by private philanthropy, which means that while the Unreasonable Institute is promoting entrepreneurship, they are depending on donations for the Institute’s existence and for attendees who are raising money themselves to be able to get to Boulder.  Investors and business have no shame.

Nonetheless, Epstein is both unreasonable and right in developing a program to expand the base to support creative solutions in international work!  ACORN International’s experience dovetails precisely with his analysis.  Funders don’t take many domestic risks, and they are going to take proportionately less risks in international work (see a longer argument in Global Grassroots:  International Perspectives on International Organizing

The story Seligson reported on Ben Lyon in Kenya who has started something called Kopo Kopo Inc which has devised “a mobile payment app that helps people make purchases in areas where banks don’t exist or where fees are too high for the poor to open accounts.”  Those areas are everywhere!  Count on the fact that ACORN Kenya will track him down to help in Korogocho…how about something for remittances Kopo Kopo?

On some of the others, who can tell?  More troubling was whether or not investors are really ready to buy, which also unfortunately agrees with our experience as well as we have tried to pitch recycling business models in Dharavi (Mumbai) and other cities as well as proven fundraising programs that are easily adaptable to developing megacities.  An investment director at something called the Investor’s Circle, which finances “businesses with a social or environmental impact” still seemed skeptical based on the distances and the payout possibilities.

Whatever?  If we are going to get traction, we are going to have to move a different direction.   While I’m trying to get my arms around a coffee house and bio-diesel operation, I can guarantee its high risk and hard to make happen, but what choices do we really have?


Donors Muscling Democracy in Detroit

QPIMG_5892New Orleans No matter how jaded we might be about the ways and means that the deep pockets of philanthropies muscle up and try to force their will on desperate grant seekers, the article in the Wall Street Journal by Matthew Dolan, “Revival Bid Pits Donor Against Detroit,” was a shocking tale of arrogance, elitism, and autocracy by Rip Rapson and the $3.1 billion Kresge Foundation.

Reading the article it was hard to see any controversy.  Rapson and Kresge had backup on their heels in a face of wills on whether or not they knew what was best for Detroit and could impose their “vision” accordingly or whether or not the newly elected reform mayor and former NBA basketball player, Dave Bing, and the citizens should drive the process.  Clearly they were flat ass dead wrong and the article couldn’t have been clearer.

The foundation had put money into Detroit Works, a standard issue, consultant driven planning apparatus for looking at Detroit’s future similar to what virtually every city in the US has tried to unite business, labor, and other “stakeholders” to come together behind a plan.  Bing had put the operation together before he was elected as a transition vehicle for his emerging government.  Nothing much of a surprise here either.  It’s all standard issue in big time, big city politics.  The difference here is that Bing was elected and, appropriately, moved to integrate planning and other functions in city departments and, as mayor, make sure everyone got their fair say.

Rapson seems to have petulantly pulled Kresge’s money out of Detroit Works trying to insist that an outside planner from Harvard recruited earlier to run roughshod over the local players still got to push the program.  He also doesn’t like the way a rail plan is developing and the fact that the City of Detroit wants to drive the engine, not Kresge with him wearing an engineer’s cap, so he’s also suspended the foundation’s money there, arguing that without Kresge the project is DOA.  Whoa, doggie!  Kresge’s big bucks do give them a big stick and a loud voice because unfortunately that is the way things work in America, but didn’t he at least read a couple of the pages in the foundation executives’ handbook that says they should at least pretend they care about what others thing?  What country is Rapson from that he thinks this is the way the world works?

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